Monday, April 23, 2012

Why You Might Want to Reject Harvard

I wrote an essay, "Why you shouldn't go to Harvard even if you could get in?" A reader sent me this in response. My rejoinders to him are embedded in blue.

It is foolish that you discourage talented kids from applying to top tier schools. And your article is just plain wrong on several counts.

1. My family makes $80,000 per year. Solidly middle class. And I pay EXACTLY $3,000 per year.

That sounds lower than what I thought was typical. I'm not sure if that is typical, anomalous, or a function of your parents' "creativity" in completing the financial aid apps. If typical, that makes a designer-label college a more reasonable choice for someone in your family's income bracket, but not for many of the readers of my essay, whose incomes are in the $100,000-$150,000 range, and for whom paying at or near Harvard's sticker price would be a significant threat to their financial security, not to mention that Ivy often is a cost-ineffective purchase. 

For many although not all Ivy-caliber students, the honors program at a brand-name State U may be a wiser choice. And I'm not just talking in economic terms. There is a pathology extant at prestigious institutions: an  unhealthy stress that comes from the aggregation of the world's most brilliant and driven people all taking courses from the most brilliant professors, the latter who often are obsessed with the unnecessarily difficult and arcane. Also, an Ivy-caliber student at a less-selective institution is far more likely to get valuable student-leader positions and substantive mentoring from key faculty and administrators. Those may do more to abet the student's development and his or her career prospects than a designer label on the diploma.

2. The professors are exceptional. Professors are paid to know their subject, not to be your friend or kindergarten teacher. Unless you have actually taken classes at Harvard, it is not your place to judge their quality, whatever your sources may say.

Perhaps you've had unusually good instructors--On average, in terms of what should be occurring in an undergraduate education---significant elevation of thinking skills, connoisseurship, etc---most research-university professors are far from the best people for the job. By the way, while I have not taken courses at Harvard, I'm not gathering information just from third-party sources---I've taken plenty of courses at a top research university: I hold a masters and Ph.D. in the evaluation of education and other innovations from the University of California, Berkeley and subsequently taught in Berkeley's Graduate School as well as at three other universities. 

3. I didn't prostitute myself to get in. You will not be accepted unless you are genuine, and the admissions officers are outstanding at reading between the lines.

Perhaps you didn't, but many aspirants to designer-label colleges spend lots of time on activities that aren't optimal for their intellectual and human development, let alone are fun. For example, they take SAT prep courses, do crew, play tuba, serve soup to the homeless or do some other extracurricular mainly because it will abet their admissibility. That's selling your personal growth and teenage years so you can have a designer-label on your diploma--not a very Harvard-caliber judgment call.

4. I honestly believe that the Harvard name will give me an advantage when I apply for jobs. You are foolish to believe it won't.

The advantages of the designer label on the diploma and spending four years with Harvard-caliber students are obvious. But I hope you won't suffer the minuses of the experience and its sequelae that are common at places like Harvard--the amount of stress, burnout, and inflated ego that damage their career and personal life. Ivy-caliber students that attend the honors program at a flagship State U derive many advantages. In addition to the aforementioned enhanced opportunities for leadership and getting mentored, you won't need to kill yourself to get good grades, freeing time for more life-valuable co-curricular activities than the esoterica so often focused on by professors at research universities. 

Is it harmful to aspire to greatness?

Of course not, but there are many paths to greatness, and for the reasons I've outlined here, for many, although certainly not all students (for example, designer-label research universities are a good choice for the superacademically-centric genius aspiring to be a researcher), the designer-label U path is most overrated.

You've called me "foolish" a number of times in your email. Beware of hubris. It's a cliche but true that young people are excessively confident that they know more than older people. Retain a measure of open-mindedness. That, as much as attending Harvard, may be key to achieving the greatness to which you aspire.

If I may offer one more bit of advice on making the most of Harvard: You'll likely learn much more of value outside the classroom than in. Do projects with the most brilliant, well-adjusted, ethical, and personable of your classmates: Start a business, invent something, etc.

In addition to my essay and this response to you, you might want to read one or more of the many articles agreeing with my contention before deeming me foolish:


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